On Cinderella Ate my Daughter – A French Mother’s Perspective

Last month I read Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderalla Ate my Daughter (here is the review) and I liked it a lot. It left me with many questions as I have no children and most of my friends either have none or they are too small or simply not girls. The only mother of a girl the age of Orenstein’s daughter I could think of was Emma (Book Around the Corner). We decided to do a double post. While she will post her review of the book on her blog, I post her answers to my questions on mine.

My hunch was that although a very accurate portrayal of some topics, Orenstein also depicted many purely American things. I also wanted to know from a mother how she dealt with all the traps and pitfalls that you encounter when raising kids in our society. I enjoyed reading her answers a lot and hope you will be interested as well.

Foreword about Emma

I was born in the 1970s and raised by a feminist mother who loves clothes and by a progressive father who always shared domestic tasks with his wife. So some things seem obvious to me. I have a daughter and a son who will be ten and seven-and-a-half year old in September. I have many friends and colleagues with children around that age. When I say “I” in the answers, I could have said “We” as my husband and I have very few disagreements on education. I also want to add that I haven’t read any parenting book since the ones for babies focusing on pampering, healing red bottoms, handling tooth aches and high fevers. Our only guide-book is our shared values, our common sense and what we think is important for the development of our children. For the rest, we do our best and we know we’ll make mistakes.

Are the Disney Princesses really as important in France as they seem to be in the US?

Yes and no.

Yes they are as important as far as marketing is concerned. You have glasses, notebooks, T-Shirts, towels, etc, all kind of objects with the Disney Princesses printed on them. But for me they are among other “brands” like Nemo, Lightening Queen, Winx Club and Totally Spies.

No they aren’t, as I never witnessed that girls identified with those princesses the way Orenstein describes. There’s one reason for that I think. When I read Orenstein’s book, I noticed that at several occasions she casually mentions that little girls go to school, to a show or to the mall in Disney Princess dresses. I was really shocked. In France, everybody will look at you if your daughter wears such a dress outside when it’s not Carnival. You can’t bring your child to school dressed as a princess or a pirate. Those dresses aren’t regular outfits. They are costumes. I’m not a psychologist but it seems to me it makes the difference between thinking you’re a princess and playing at being a princess. You don’t wear those dresses in your “real” life. The children understand the nuance very well.

Did your daughter go through a phase like this? How did you handle it?

Yes my daughter had a princess phase and she absolutely loved her high heels plastic shoes. I suspect that was because they made noise when she walked just like my high heel shoes do. For me it was more doing like Mom does than imitating a Disney Princess. And I thought it was natural for a girl to identify with her mother. After all, my son sometimes looks at his legs trying to detect if hair is growing so that he can have hairy legs like Dad.

She also had several princess dresses (according to her size) but she never thought she was a princess. It was clearly a game. So we let her play.

Later, a feminist friend of mine got her a pirate costume. She chose to wear it for Carnival at school and she didn’t mention any disagreeable comment from other kids. This year she had a witch costume. I’m not sure but I think I remember a note from school saying something like “Carnival will be on (date). The children can be dressed in costume. Please, no princess dresses”.

Did you think it was harmful as it was focusing too much on beauty and appearance?

I don’t think it was harmful for her. I think it focuses too much on beauty and appearance but let’s be realistic, that’s how our world works. Plus, children’s stories have always focused on beauty for girls. When I was little, I didn’t have Disney Princess dresses but I saw Disney films and heard fairy tales. It’s always about a beautiful princess and the prince never falls for her because she’s smart or funny. It’s always because she’s gorgeous. What I mean is that we don’t need Disney to have that model imposed on us.

How about the Bratz Doll? I’ve never seen one but I’m not regularly in toy shops. Would you let your daughter have one if she really wanted it?

My daughter doesn’t have one and never asked for one. I’ve never seen any in other people’s houses. I’m not sure I’d buy one. If I had to decide, I’d balance between the risk of her being apart and the risk of her being exposed to a very sexist toy.

Where do you draw the line and find a balance between – as Orenstein called it – going Amish on her or being too permissive?

I have my idea of what a little girl should not be doing and wearing:

  • No nail-polish in school but OK during the holidays as long as it is pale.

  • No make-up except for dressing-up and not to go to parties or outside.

  • She has curly hair: there is no way I’m going to buy an straigthening iron and do her hair. She’s too young.

  • No dyed hair

  • No tattoo even if it’s a children friendly one. (anyway they’re forbidden in school)

  • I compromised on earrings: OK for long ones if they aren’t too big or too dangerous. She can’t wear them on PE days in school.

  • No slutty clothes.

The list isn’t exhaustive. So far, it seems that other parents around us have more or less the same rules. So she never had big pressure and never threw a big tantrum. And we’ve never faced major questions. If she asks for a gloss, I say no and that she’s too young. If she wants a T-Shirt I think is vulgar, I say no and explain why. Of course she cries sometimes but that’s life, you can’t have whatever you want.

In the long term, I think that as long as nail polish (for example) is forbidden, it will be transgressive to have some. It will be a victory for her when I eventually say yes, a harmless victory but an important one for her. The more barriers we put now, the more “harmless” barriers she’ll break when she’s a teenager. That’s our bet.

The line is our values. It’s our role to explain our decisions properly so that they don’t appear too unjust. I have to admit we’re lucky we haven’t had problems so far. She seems to choose friends who live by the same kind of rules.

Would you allow sexualized toys and clothes?

Yes for toys because she has two or three Barbies. (She’s not a huge fan) and no for clothes. (no thongs, net stockings, T-shirts showing belly buttons…) Anyway these clothes aren’t allowed in school.

Did you also notice that your son was more reluctant to play with your daughter’s toys than the other way around?

No I didn’t notice that. Our daughter has never been interested in dolls. She loves Littlest Pet Shops and her brother plays with her. She has a very vivid imagination, she invents stories and games and he really likes it. She plays with cars too with him. They like Legos and Playmobils. They build houses or cars, it depends of the day.

Did your daughter ever report that others attacked her because she wasn’t following the trend or speaking up for herself?

No I’ve never heard of that but there’s always a risk that she didn’t report it. She complains sometimes that we don’t let her watch TV at nights or that she hasn’t seen Twilight or other films we consider are too “adult” for her.

How did you handle the pink phase? Is it even possible to find toys and clothes in other colours?

We waited for the pink phase to end. It’s over now. I wear a lot of pink myself and my husband has pink shirts. I think we’re safe about this.

It’s not that hard to find non-pink toys for girls. When she was little, she had Little People and big Legos. Now she has Littlest Pet Shops or Playmobils. But sure, a Barbie’s car will be pink.

It can be difficult to find cheap non-pink clothes. But it’s easier as she grows up. However, pink isn’t the worst. The worst are the ones with slutty designs or cuts. It was a big thing a few years ago. It seems to improve now.

Are there beauty pageants for little girls in France like in the US?

Yes, there are some but I don’t think they broadcast them on TV or maybe on some obscure cable TV. That’s the big difference.

Did you find good children’s books with role models that are inspiring?

I never looked for them. They have subscriptions to children’s magazines (Astrapi, Histoires Vraies, I Love English for our daughter and Pirouette for our son). Bayard Presse is very good for children and it’s for boys and girls. We have chosen them because they’re interesting and clever. They’re also neutral. There are really stupid magazines for little girls out there. (with girlie stuff, teaching to girls a model of the woman as a shopping addict, a lover of long chats with friends and also promoting an untimely interest for boys).

Our son has also a subscription to children’s books through school (L’Ecole des Loisirs). They’re of good quality. Otherwise I choose neutral gender books. I refuse to buy Totally Spies or Winx Club or Barbie or Pet Shop Books. These are not books. These are marketing.

About role models. Our daughter is a huge Harry Potter fan. And Hermione Granger is a fantastic model. She’s smart. She befriends with Harry and is not in love with Harry, so friendship with a boy is possible. She’s brave. She doesn’t wonder if what she intends to do will mess up with her hair or not.

Btw, I don’t agree with Orenstein’s analysis of Bella Swan (Twilight)

Do you even buy gender specific toys and how much non-gender toys are available?

My policy has always been: no toy ironing board or vacuum cleaner for her and no guns or cars for him. There’s no way I’m going to buy those stupid girl board games about boyfriends, secrets and supposedly girlie stuff. As far as I know her friends don’t have them either.

An anecdote. My daughter had received a pink car with a small doll in it. She never played with that toy. According to the above mentioned policy, we didn’t rush to buy cars to our son. When he wasn’t even walking, he started to play with the pink car all the time. Then we bought him cars, firemen trucks and “boys” stuff. Not because he was a boy but because he liked to play with them. If he had asked for a doll, he would have had one.

Are there non-gender toys out there? No except for Playmobils, Legos, Kaplas, board games and outside games (balls, bowling) Of course you will find those in gender-marketed colours (pink balls, pink bikes…) but you can find them in neutral colours too.

Did you also notice the Facebook craze and calling 622 girls girlfriends in France?

There’s also a Facebook craze but my daughter is too young. She doesn’t have an account. She never asked for one, her friends don’t have one either. I’m worried about social networks, but I’m not there yet.

A colleague with older children told me he received a guidebook from the collège to explain to parents how to handle Facebook and let the children use it in security. His son can’t accept a new “friend” without his approval. (he has a password). That’s fair.

Someone reported me the kind of bullying Orenstein describes. Mostly gossip that takes huge proportions because it spreads farther and faster. I think it’s really harmful as humiliations during adolescence can leave deep scars.

Anyway, another colleague has a very smart and safe policy: no electronic device in rooms after bed time. Laptops, cell phones, DS and so on sleep in the living-room. Sleep is important for kids and teenagers. I think she’s right. (And of course, children don’t have TVs in their rooms)

Is Hannah Montana loved in France as well?

She is known here too but her series is on Disney Channel. It’s a paid TV and not all families have it. We don’t. My daughter said she saw the series once when we had the channel for free. She said it’s stupid as it only talks about boys and singers. (C’est nul! Was the exact phrase. How lovely to my ears!!)

About Hannah Montana and the like singers: don’t forget that children here don’t understand the lyrics and most of the parents aren’t able to translate them. The impact is different.

*****

I’d like to thank Emma for answering my questions. It gives another dimension to my reading of the book and, I think a better understanding of the differences between the US and Europe.

Don’t forget to visit her page and read her thoughts on the books. She also included interesting photos.

Here is the link to her review.

Peggy Orenstein: Cinderella Ate My Daughter (2011)

An intelligent, candid, and often personal work, Cinderella Ate My Daughter offers an important exploration of the burgeoning girlie-girl culture and what it could mean for our daughters’ identities and their futures.

What happens when a feminist who knows exactly how things should be, gets pregnant and the child is – horror on horror – a girl? This is pretty much how Peggy Orenstein opens her entertaining, thought-provoking and occasionally quite shocking account about what she sub-titles “Dispatches from the front-lines of the new girlie-girl culture”.

In Cinderella Ate my Daughter she explores the world of toys, kid’s beauty pageants, the color pink, superhero figures, fairy tales, the internet and so on and so forth. It is at the same time a cultural exploration as a reflection on how to bring up a daughter. How much can you allow, how well can you shield her from the influences around her and what if you succeed and she will forever be a boyish girl, the odd one out?

A lot of what Peggy Orenstein describes is certainly very American. I have seen items of the Disney Princesses’ brand but never to the extent she describes. The Disney Princesses are a marketing strategy that exploited little girls’ wish to look and dress up like a princess. The main problem, so Orenstein, is the focus on cuteness and looks only. What is also problematic is the fact that, although there are several princesses, they are never found to interact and on pictures showing them together, they all look into different directions.

Orenstein finally had to give in and let her daughter dress up as a princess but she stayed firm when it came to sexualized toys like the Bratz doll. She also explores at length how  even little girls are dressed in more and more sexy ways. Once more it is all about looks and not about feeling. The girls should look sexy but not feel it (of course not, they are only little girls), only if this is a behaviour they learn at a young age, how will they un-learn it?

The chapter on beauty pageants is one of the most controversial. Orenstein showed how confusing it was to speak with the families, to see how much the girls enjoyed it and she wondered finally if it was really all that damaging.

The chapter on pink was an interesting one and I liked how she described that this is rather a new phenomenon. Only a couple of decades back, pink wasn’t so important. Once more there is a marketing strategy behind it. If boys and girls are the same, you sell far less toys. Just imagine, a family has a boy and a girl, they wouldn’t need to buy special boy and girl toys, if there were no differences. Of course, it is more complicated than that, I simplify.

I never expected, when I had a daughter, that one of my most important jobs would be to protect her childhood for becoming a marketers’ land grab.

The chapter Wholesome to Whoresome was another fascinating part. Reading about the case of Miley Cyrus and other girl stars who seem to cross the border from cute child to slut in an instance and how this not only damages their self-esteem but confuses the fans is enlightening. Those girls have to be cute and sexy at a young age but as soon as they become teenagers the problems starts. They should be virginal but they can’t. Britney Spears is another sad example.

I found one of the last chapters on social media and virtual friendships called Just Between You and Me and My 662 BFFs extremely worrying. The umber of so-called friends on Facebook and the like indicates the popularity of a girl. At the same time, all their fears and weaknesses are exposed to the whole world at an age when they can hardly handle it.

The self, Manago (a researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center in LA) said, becomes a brand, something to be marketed to others rather than developed from within. Instead of intimates with whom you interact for the sake of exchange, friends become your consumers, an audience for whom you perform.

According to Orenstein, recent research has shown, that there is an alarming rise in narcissistic tendencies among young adults as social media encourages self-promotion over self-awareness.

What I liked a lot is how honest Orenstein is about finding out how nice things are in theory and how super difficult and different things get when you face them in real life. Still, she concludes, it is vital, not to let go, to talk to the girls, ask them questions, guide them and to look for role models they can identify with and that will help them develop a strong sense of their self as beings and not as products.

I won’t lie: it takes work to find other options, and if you are anything like me, your life is already brimful with demands.

It is amazing that in all her sorting out of children’s books, cartoons for girls, fairy tales and movies there was only one director in whose films  there are female protagonists who are

refreshingly free of agenda, neither hyperfeminine nor drearily feminist. They simply happen to be girls, as organically as, in other director’s films, they happen to be boys.

The man she is speaking of is Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki who signed such fantastic movies as Laputa: The Castle in the Sky or Kiki’s Delivery Service.

I discovered the book on Fence’s blog. Here is her review.

If you want to know more about Peggy Orenstein and her books you should visit her website Peggy Orenstein.

Kat Banyard: The Equality Illusion (2010)

Women apparently have never had it so good. In today’s supposedly post-feminist world, cosmetic surgery is seen as empowering, lap dancing as a sexually liberating career, and the lack of women from boardroom a result of women’s free choices. In The Equality Illusion, campaigner Kat Banyard argues passionately and articulately that feminism continues to be one of the most urgent and relevant social justice campaigns today.

Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Men and Women Today takes an unflinching look at what it means to be a woman today and, due to the fact that Banyard is British, especially in the UK .

Still, whether you are an Afghan woman fighting for girl’s rights of literacy or an American doctor performing late stage abortions, you have one thing in common: you lead a dangerous life and might end up being killed. Both things happened.  The first happened in Afghanistan in 2006, the second in the US in 2009. They illustrate the illusion of equality and show what a global phenomenon it is.

Banyard structured the book like a day in a woman’s life and tied each part to a topic. Getting up – beauty myths, going to work – sexual harassment and the opposite of equal opportunity, coming home – domestic violence and unwanted pregnancies, evening out- lap dancing clubs, porn industry and prostitution… This structure works very well.

The key topics are beauty and looks, equal opportunity at work, poverty, literacy, the sex industry, domestic violence, abuse, relationships and children. Banyard looks at everyday life and how it is lived and not so much at the ideas beneath it all. There is an introdcutory chapter on false assumptions about gender but it is quite short.

To say the least, I was shocked about a lot of the data and statistics and saddened by most of the individual stories. Whoever said that feminism wasn’t needed anymore or that we were by now equal?

Women are to this day among the poorest of the world. In some African countries little girls do not go to school because they are raped on the way. In the UK some girls have bad grades because there is constant sexual harassment at school and all the teachers do is saying “boys will be boys”. In some countries girls are forbidden to learn to write and read.

Humiliating and degrading girls serves to highlight just how masculine boys really are. And so, sexist bullying and sexual harassment are an integral part of daily school life for many girls. (p.67)

What women have to face at work isn’t much better. Cases of all forms of sexual harassment are frequent. Women with children do not have a lot of chances to make a career, especially not, when, as seems to be the case, men do not help enough when it comes to child rearing. Payment is still not equal at all and this stems to a large part from the fact that many jobs performed by women are considered to be less valuable and are paid less.

Legislation can create the illusion that equality has been achieved. But just because it is officially illegal to pay women less than men for equal work, to sack them for being pregnant, or to sexually harass them, it doesn’t mean theses things don’t go on. There is a huge gulf between policy and practice, and much current legislation – particularly around equal pay – lacks real bite. In a society where women still do the majority of unpaid caring, rigid workplace structures and the long-hours culture mean they pay a huge penalty for doing so. (p.101)

There is a trend, especially in the UK to normalize the porn industry. According to the interviews in this book, there is no such thing as “elegant lap dancing clubs”. Sooner or later all the women are harassed and coerced into having sex. Prostitution may be a choice but only because the women have not much to lose. They have often been abused as children, are very poor, have no education or just had no idea what they were getting into. “At work” they face brutality and violence on top of the degrading activity of selling their bodies.

I think the way society has glorified prostitution is very sad. I believe young women all over the world are becoming more curious (about going into prostitution) due to the positive light that is shown on this horrid profession. (p.145)

Domestic violence is extremely wide-spread, rape is on the up and many perpetrators are never convicted and if they are the punishment is ludicrous.

What bothers me personally the most in my personal life are two things. One is something I’m facing at work- there is no such a thing as equal treatment and the other is something I see happen, namely the overwhelming presence of the influence of the porn industry. Porn practices, fashion and looks seem to become normalized to the extent where you can find “sexy” underwear and clothes for little girls at the supermarket.

Compared to all this it may seem futile to debate whether all the pink toys for girls are really an issue or not but when you dig deeper, you just see that it is one of the symptoms of gender inequality. And it’s everywhere.

What I truly liked about the book, is that Kat Banyard offers hope. Her last chapter and the appendix are entirely dedicated to grassroot activism which is extremely important work and she offers a list of resources. She clearly shows how important feminism still is, that you can achieve something if you want to, it doesn’t need to be anything big and that your dedication may inspire others to follow your example. Last but not least she underlines that feminism also needs the contribution of men and they will ultimately also benefit from equality.

l read about this book on Still Life with Books. I’m really glad I read it and would love to hear from anyone who has read this or any of the other new/old publications. My first thought when I saw these new books was “But that has been done before….” Yes, it has, but apparently most of it has been forgotten. And we need books that back up the topics with actual data or the books get dismissed as being outdated.

I hope I might finally get to Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender next.

J. Courtney Sullivan: Commencement (2009)

A sparkling debut novel: a tender story of friendship, a witty take on liberal arts colleges, and a fascinating portrait of the first generation of women who have all the opportunities in the world, but no clear idea about what to choose.

Assigned to the same dorm their first year at Smith College, Celia, Bree, Sally, and April couldn’t have less in common. Celia, a lapsed Catholic, arrives with her grandmother’s rosary beads in hand and a bottle of vodka in her suitcase; beautiful Bree pines for the fiancé she left behind in Savannah; Sally, pristinely dressed in Lilly Pulitzer, is reeling from the loss of her mother; and April, a radical, redheaded feminist wearing a “Riot: Don’t Diet” T-shirt, wants a room transfer immediately.

Celia, Bree, Sally and April are best friends even though they couldn’t be more different. During their time at Smith’s College they are inseparable. They help each other through minor and bigger disasters. Four years after graduating they meet again at Sally’s wedding. A stupid dispute drives them apart and they avoid each other for almost a year when April disappears.

Commencement is a novel of ideas. I don’t know why it has been called chick-lit. Because four young women are the protagonists? Quite unfair. It is as if this label proves the point the book wants to make. Even years after women’s lib began, we are still nowhere. A large part of Commencement is dedicated to topics like sex-trafficking, rape and child abuse. Despite the serious topics it tackles, it is an entertaining book with a lighthearted quality. But it is definitely a feminist novel in the vein of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room and not chick-lit. I needed some time to get into it as each chapter is told by someone else. We hear that person’s story and get to know the others through her eyes. That wouldn’t be confusing, but they sound similar and their names are similar. Sullivan let’s her characters explore all the possibilities women have today. Getting married, staying single, having kids, having no kids, become lesbians, have various sexual partners, be monogamous. She looks into the mechanics of family and friendship. One girl’s parents are still in love, another has lost her mother, the third grew up with a single hippie mom and the fourth has a career mom. Regarding their professional choices Sullivan goes a similar way. They all chose something quite different. Sullivan who is a feminist deliberately chose to show every possible combination/choice. This could have gone wrong but it is well done. From page to page I liked those girls more. I wouldn’t go as far as comparing it to Mary Mc Carthy’s The Group but it is very good.  Ronnie, April’s boss, a militant feminist and audacious filmmaker is a very interesting character. Her ideals are such that she is blinded by them and becomes a true fanatic. A selfish zealot who does not shy away from endangering others for the cause. Another interesting aspect is that even though one girl loves another girl, she never considers herself to be a lesbian. The depiction of a women’s college is probably very realistic as Sullivan went to Smith herself. The friendship of those girls is very touching. It’s cute how they cuddle up in bed together, watch movies or chat.

If you are looking for an interesting, thought-provoking but still entertaining read, go for it. Especially when you are a feminist, interested in women’s topics or just love stories about friendship among women.

I mentioned The Group and The Women’s Room before which I loved both. Which books about female friendships and developpment did you like?